A prime example of this is the myth that in Regency or Victorian England, marriage could be quietly annulled if it wasn’t consummated. I don’t know who started that, but it is unarguably false. There was an ancient Scottish tradition that allowed for annulment in certain circumstances if the marriage was not consummated, but for all intents and purposes, marriage in England was permanent--especially in England. Furthermore, in England, annulment was messy and scandalous and never, ever happened quietly. It also socially ruined both the husband and the wife. Even divorce was difficult to obtain until King Henry VII legalized divorce in England, and even then, never became an easy thing to do until late in the 20th century.
Today, more and more publishers are looking for historical accuracy, but still not enough to satisfy many history geeks. The winner of a nationally recognized historical contest began her Regency Romance novel with a grand wedding full of descriptions that are modern inventions which never happened in that era. Why did she win? Probably because it was a lovely fantasy that blended history with modern-day traditions, and she was a good writer. Too bad the judges overlooked the fact that it was historically inaccurate. A few hours spent in research would have won her not only the contest, but the respect of other regency authors and the well-informed readers who know better. However, she probably understood that readers have a certain expectation and wanted to meet that instead of rely upon historical accuracy.
Why do I care about historical accuracy? Several reasons.
First, because it’s true. The fiction comes from the plot and the characters, not the setting.
Second, it helps preserve our heritage. Though I am a true American mutt, I have strong English lineage on both sides of my family--and so does my husband who can trace his ancestry back to William the Conquerer--and holding fast to the facts helps me stay in touch with my roots.
Third, we can learn from the past. The good old days weren’t all that good which helps me appreciate our day. But aspects of the good old days really were wonderful and should be treasured--and remembered.
Fourth, many readers (and writers) are fascinated with that era and want sources to guide them through it so they can explore it without having to turn to a history book. When readers connect with characters, history is lived, rather than simply read about.
Fifth, keeping an accurate backdrop helps shape the characters. Research is more than just learning about the clothing or what kind of carriages they drove; it’s about society and people, how they behaved and what their expectations and frustrations were. It’s a realm long gone and our only doorway back is through painstaking research.
Some say, “Oh, well, it’s the story we want and the fantasy that entertains us.” To that I say, “Well, fine, then label it a fantasy, not a historical.” If you’re going to call a novel Historical, or Historical Fiction, do the research. I know it's a pain. For years ago, characters nagged me to write their stories but I resisted because I didn't want to do the amount of research that would be required. Finally, when they wouldn't leave me alone, I broke down and began researching. It's hard, and frustrating, and very time consuming. But it was worth it. The fruits of my labor became the Rogue Hearts series, beginning with The Stranger She Married and The Guise of a Gentleman. Now, I love the research aspect of writing historicals.
In the midst of the on-line ranting that occured on our writers group, one of the published authors in my group shared with us her philosophy:
As a writer, my job is threefold:
1) do my homework well enough to please my fellow history geeks,
2) make the story compelling enough to hook readers who don't care whether or not it's accurate, and
3) don’t stress over writers/readers who prefer the fairytale.
It resonated within me. I hope it helps you, too.
Image found on Wikimedia common